Four days after Philadelphia became the first major American city to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in response to rising coronavirus cases this spring, the city health department announced that the mandate would be lifted because of improving conditions.
The city health commissioner, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, said on Friday morning that recent days of declining case counts and hospitalizations in the city meant a mask requirement was no longer necessary. Pointing out that cases and hospitalizations were still rising in some surrounding counties and states, Dr. Bettigole argued that the improving situation in Philadelphia was proof that the mandate — even just the announcement of it on April 11, a week before it went into effect — had worked.
“It looks like what happened was that announcement itself was enough to head off that wave,” she said in a news conference, arguing that Philadelphians had immediately increased their vigilance in response to the announcement. “We consistently want to be the least restrictive necessary. And if that level of warning is enough to head off a wave, then we don’t need a mandate.”
Dr. Bettigole said that city officials had not made the decision in response to public pressure or to a judge’s decision this week throwing out a federal mask mandate on public transportation, but that they had simply been following the data all along.
The resumption of the mandate had been automatically triggered when case numbers reached certain metrics detailed in the city’s Covid-19 response system, which was put in place in February to ensure data transparency behind the city’s policy decisions. However, in Friday’s news conference, Dr. Bettigole said that the system was being scrapped, and that warnings of risk seemed to be as effective as mandates.
“What we’re trying to do is to move away from kind of these triggers,” she said. “We want to make sure people have really solid information and understand what their risk is.”
Philadelphia is not alone in trying to navigate a confounding landscape of new variants and changing restrictions. Policies change at city limits and county lines; some airports mandate masks while the airplanes taking off from them no longer do, after the federal decision regarding face coverings on public transportation. That decision was issued on Monday, the same day that Philadelphia’s mandate went into effect. It also applied to local transit systems, including the one in Philadelphia, where masks are no longer required. Thursday night’s announcement about the lifting of the citywide mandate only added to the muddle.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who had defended the mask mandate in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, hours before the announcement that it was being lifted, said in a statement that “as cases level off and hospitalizations fall, we still strongly encourage Philadelphians and visitors to our city to wear masks.”
The metrics under the city’s now-defunct response system were much more sensitive to growth in case numbers than federal guidelines, which focus heavily on hospitalizations. Philadelphia officials said they designed them that way to forestall surges before they become perilously large. Over the course of the pandemic, more than 5,000 people in the city have died from Covid-19.
The indoor mask mandate had been triggered when the average daily number of newly reported cases increased by more than 50 percent over a 10-day period, surpassing 100 cases a day. The week between the announcement of the mandate and its enforcement, Covid-related hospitalizations in the city nearly doubled, peaking at 82.
On Friday, the number of new reported cases was about 190, lower than the average of new cases over the past few days, and the number of hospitalizations was 71.
The reactions to the initial announcement of the mandate ranged from anger among many of the city’s business owners, some of whom sued the city in response, to praise from some public health experts around the country. Many of the city’s residents accepted the return of mask-wearing, which had been required all of last winter, as a matter of course.
But the back and forth this week was testing their patience.
“You’ve got to be more consistent,” said David Chisolm, 55, a barber in a part of Northeast Philadelphia with some of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the city. “People are gonna start saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what y’all are doing.’”